Iraq: Humility Is the Best Option

Via The U.S. Army, Flickr.com

Via The U.S. Army, Flickr.com

America is stunned by what is happening in Iraq right now, and happening so quickly. We may be facing the worst terrorist threat to international security so far — despite all we have done and sacrificed. Both our political leaders and media pundits are admitting there are no good options for the U.S. now. But there is an option we could try for the first time: humility. Let me turn to two biblical texts that might provide some wisdom for both the religious and non-religious.

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:20–21)

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

All nations use propaganda to tell half-truths and spread misinformation about their enemies, which should be honestly challenged. Even so, it is also true that we have real enemies in this world, as individuals, groups, and nations. To assume otherwise is foolish, from the perspective of history, certainly, but also in light of good theology about evil as part of the nature of the human condition. According to the Bible, even our faith communities will encounter enemies. Jesus’s teaching assumes that we will have enemies, and he teaches us how to treat them. In the passages above, Jesus and Paul the Apostle offer guidance for more effective ways of dealing with our enemies. It seems to be clear that our habit of going to war against them is increasingly ineffective. For the past several years, we have found ourselves in a constant state of war with “enemies” who are very hard to find or completely defeat.

Remembering D-Day: Sacrifice, Gratitude, and Lessons Learned

American War Cemetery at Omaha Beach, Normandy.  ilolab / Shutterstock.com

American War Cemetery at Omaha Beach, Normandy. ilolab / Shutterstock.com

On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, I thought of my father, who died several years ago. James Emerson Wallis, Sr. was commissioned in the Navy, graduated from college at the University of Michigan, and was married — all on the same June day in 1945! After a very quick honeymoon, my Dad was sent out almost immediately to the Pacific as the engineering officer on a destroyer minesweeper. I heard most about that day, and the days that followed, while sitting with my father on the benches at the World War II Memorial shortly after it opened in Washington, D.C. I soon realized why there were so many benches there — so old war veterans could sit down for a while, even for hours, to remember and tell their stories to the ones they most love.

For his 80th birthday, our family invited my dad to go anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He said he wanted to go to Oxford, England, to see the where his favorite Christian author C.S. Lewis lived — and then he wanted to go to Normandy, where so many of his high school buddies died on D-Day. He wanted to go to those beaches and to that special place himself to see the memorials to his friends. So we did both. My father got to sit at the desk of C.S. Lewis with a big smile on his face. Then I took my dad and my father-in-law to that very solemn place where American and Allied soldiers paid such a heavy human cost in perhaps the most historically significant military action in history.

To the Women of Syria

I wish I could sit beside you on a cushion on the floor and have a cup of tea with you. I would like to snuggle your baby in my arms. I would like to hear your story. I know you have a sad story, and if I heard it, I would weep.

I know you are good and loving women. I’m sorry you have lost so much. I’m sorry you had to come to a country, a city, and a house that is not yours.

I can imagine you in your own country, strong women serving others. I can imagine you making beautiful food and sharing it with your family and friends. I can imagine you caring for your mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers and friends. Just the way I do.

Because that’s what women do. We are compassionate. We give. We serve. We protect. We work hard to make the world better for the people we love.

Wherever I go in the world, I discover that we women are very much alike. We may have different clothes. Different languages. Different cultures. Maybe our skin is a different color. But in our hearts, we are the same.

That’s why we can look into each other’s eyes and feel connected. We can talk without using words. We can smile. We can hug. We can laugh.

And sometimes, we can feel each other’s pain. I have prayed that God would help me feel your pain. I wish I could remove your pain. I wish I could help you carry it.

Last night while I prayed for you, I remembered a story about Jesus Christ. In the story a woman who had been suffering for many years came to Jesus. She was sick, and nobody could heal her body or comfort her mind. People had given up on her. But she believed that Christ could heal her, if she could just touch his robe. So she pushed her way silently through the crowd that followed Jesus. And finally, she touched his robe.

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The Questions We Don't Ask On Memorial Day

Monday was Memorial Day, full of family trips and events, lots of picnics and barbecues with friends and neighbors, and a national day off from school and work. For us it was the Northwest Little League All Star game here at Friendship Field in Washington D.C., a family tradition for many years. My wife Joy, the Commissioner, organized the game day, including a wonderful picnic on a glorious baseball day for players, parents, relatives, and many fans–with 300 hotdogs!

The Expectation Deficit

RECENTLY, the U.S. celebrated the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education that declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students. By winning the Brown case, Thurgood Marshall broke the rock-hard foundation of racial barriers between black and white schools in the U.S.

But the civil right of equal opportunity for equal education never ensured the human right of equal access to it. Thus the explicitly racial divide, reinforced by law, was replaced by a close kin: the poverty divide, reinforced by economic blight entrenched by white flight to the suburbs.

Ten years later President Lyndon B. Johnson took a bulldozer to that new economic divide by declaring, in his January 1964 State of the Union address, an unconditional “War on Poverty.” He said, “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined.” And it did.

EVERY WAR HAS multiple fronts. Johnson’s fight against poverty was a legislative one, which played out in states, cities, and school districts across the country. Within two years Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Social Security Act. Each act was a legislative beachhead in the assault against U.S. poverty.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 represented a major shift in the way the U.S. conceived public education. In this act, Johnson took direct aim at the economic infrastructure that barred blacks and other impoverished people from accessing equal education.

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Sarah Palin and the Beauty of Baptism

Foot-washing ceremony. Photo courtesy Jarrod McKenna

Foot-washing ceremony. Photo courtesy Jarrod McKenna

Oh, Sarah Palin.

So you’ve most likely heard Sarah Palin used baptism as a metaphor for waterboarding terrorists. (I mean I heard and I’m in Australia!) I found out when fellow neo-Anabaptist Tyler Tully sent me his reflections. Many are blogging thoughtful responses. But more and more this is my conviction: the best critique of the bad is the practice of the beautiful. So I want to testify to the beauty of the baptisms I was a part of on Sunday.

I do so knowing that the despondence and darkness I feel when baptism is equated with the diabolical is driven out in the joy of the mystery of what happen when we say yes to the Holy Spirit by wading in the water. Our new sister Natha, brother Ky, and I met separately in the End Poverty movement. Both of them, in quiet different ways, found themselves being found by God while looking for a better world. And in Jesus they found the world they were looking for has started! Without a dry eye in the community that surrounded them on Sunday, they shared their wanderings in the wilderness before following Jesus through the waters.

Protest and Praise

IT IS FITTING that The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions) begins with “Listening to Distant Guns,” written in 1940, when the poet was just 17: “The low pulsation in the east is war.”

The subject of war and its horrors, a constant in Levertov’s poetry and in her life, surfaces for the final time at the very end of this big book with these lines, written in 1997, from the poem “Thinking About Paul Celan”: You / at last could endure / no more. But we / live and live, / blithe in a world / where children kill children.

Denise Levertov (1923-1997), an American poet born in Ilford, England, to a Christian-Jewish father who was a descendant of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Hasidism, and a Welsh-Christian mother, herself the descendant of the Christian mystic Angell Jones of Mold, began to see her spiritual sensibility take a more formal religious shape only in her late 50s, when she opened to the liturgical, mystical, and social justice dimensions of Christianity, especially Catholicism, to which she later converted.

Two recent biographies, Dana Greene’s Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Lifeand Donna Krolik Hollenberg’s A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, explore deeply, albeit with inevitable overlap, the serial passions and enduring poetics of this singular artist.

At age 11, both biographers tell us, Levertov was going door to door peddling The Daily Worker in Ilford. At 12, she sent a batch of her poems to T.S. Eliot, and received back from him an encouraging response.

Poetry was her life’s purest passion. She had many lovers, many headlong, hurtful affairs to compensate for her romantically derailed and failed marriage to writer-activist Mitch Goodman. She also had a troubled relationship with their son, Nikolai, to whom Collected Poems is dedicated.

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Look at the Picture

UNRWA via Getty Images

Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on Jan. 31. UNRWA via Getty Images

Last week amid the closing of the Olympics, the national debt, and the latest pop culture ‘news,’ this photo was published that encapsulates the volume of pain and suffering that is happening in Syria. For years, the conflict in Syria has gone through its ebbs and flows; it has been in and out of the media’s attention. Even though thousands of people have been displaced and families have been forced to eat animal feed, this is not worthy for American front-page news. Sadly, travesties around the world, or even in our backyard, are categorized as “out of sight, out of mind.” Too often we are consumed by other things than those outside of our limited purview.

When I saw the photo of the suffering of the Syrians, I was shocked; I was shocked that so many people were in line to get food, shocked that despite their best efforts there is not enough food to go around. I felt sad for the people who, by no fault of their own, live in a country that is being ravaged by war, violence, greed, and power struggles. I felt embarrassed for all of the times I whined and complained about my own “problems.” All of them collectively wouldn’t even begin to compare to what people are facing in Syria at this very moment. I wanted to find a way to do something, to raise my voice for them ... anything.

VIDEO: The War Within

In "Wounded Souls" (Sojourners, April 2014), Gregg Brekke explores the church's role in "helping to mitigate the effects of guilt and shame" that veterans experience after they return home from duty. Many veterans suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), which makes integrating back into civilian life both difficult and painful. Brekke argues that the church community can and should play a vital role in helping veterans begin to heal from their wounds—wounds that are not easily seen by the human eye. 

Watch the following video from 60 Minutes to learn some of the challenges that U.S. veterans with PTSD face.

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A Time To Break Silence On Central African Republic

This weekend we'll commemorate the too-short life and great work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While we rightly celebrate his life dedicated to advancing equality for all, too often we overlook his call to peacemaking. This year, in light of conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and an often-overlooked war in Central African Republic, we should remember his words.